Sunday, October 30, 2011


It has taken me over ten years to understand all the fuss about Solanus Casey.

Why did so many people, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and others, come to him, "The Holy Priest," for counsel and prayers of healing? How come his prayers for the many were answered so miraculously? Why did 20,000 people attend his funeral? Why did the Capuchins build a shrine for him? Why, of all the saintly people born in the United States since the Catholic faith was planted here, is he the most likely to become the first male to be canonized?

I have found my answers here in Detroit.

Bernard Francis Casey was born in 1870 in Wisconsin and died in 1957 in Detroit. Taking the religious name Solanus, he was a Capuchin friar for 60 years and a priest for the last 53 years of his life.

Barney knew how unremarkable he was. He was the sixth of sixteen children in an Irish immigrant pioneer family. His education was limited, and he went to work early in his life. Nothing he did seemed to fit him. In his encounters with the large and little traumas of mundane life, this logger, prison guard, and streetcar motorman became convinced he was supposed to become a priest.

After a couple of false starts at becoming a diocesan priest, Barney heard the still small voice of God telling him to enter religious life with the Capuchins and try there to attain to the priesthood. Barney literally knocked on the door of St. Bonaventure Monastery in Detroit on Christmas Eve in 1897, and the door was opened for him.

But even there not all would turn out as Barney, now Solanus, had hoped. Studying in Milwaukee, he could not master German, the language of the immigrant people he and the Capuchins shepherded. For this reason and others concerning his academic performance, he was ordained priest but denied the faculties of preaching sermons and hearing confessions. The consequence of this was that he was relegated to minor tasks around the parish like answering the door, greeting visitors, and keeping the sacristy in order. Though he could say Mass, he held little more status than an altar server.

Father Solanus was undeterred. His was the faith of a mustard seed. He trusted in small beginnings, confident that God could make big things grow out of them. He once said that the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love are one, like God the Father-Son-Spirit is the great Three-in-One. And for him faith, like the Creator God, was the first among these.

After serving parishes in Harlem and Yonkers, Father Solanus returned to the Midwest. He was the porter at St. Bonaventure Monastery in Detroit for over 20 years. He was meant to open the door to Christ. He opened that door for everybody. He talked to everybody, and everybody could talk to the kindly and unassuming porter.

Everybody has someone like that for them -- the one person who can speak a divine word of healing to you, who can listen to you with such powerful compassion that you are opened up to holy restoration. But that someone usually reserves that divine touch for only one other person, or a few at most. Father Solanus spoke God's word of love and healing to everybody he met. He was always giving freely to everybody.

He kept nearly nothing for himself. He owned precious few possessions, among them his habit, his prayer books, a violin, and a harmonica. He owned none of the items given for his use in his cell of the friary--the bed, lamp, night-table, or typewriter.

As more and more people pressed their requests for prayers and petitions upon him, his superiors asked Father Solanus to keep a journal of his encounters. These diaries run into several volumes.

Father Solanus turned the seeming disadvantage of being a simplex priest into a great advantage. Relieved of the major duties that priests with full faculties exercised, he was freed to attend to the people of God in little but meaningful ways. He always had the right words, the kind words, the healing gesture. He had a simple faith and a total dependence on God for everything, and his confidence in God's pervasive providence made an impression on you. In his presence, you felt how given the presence of God was for him. He did not take God's presence for granted; rather, he took it as granted.

His last words were, "I give my soul to Jesus Christ." Who can say this without stuttering or swallowing hard on their own words? Who can say this and not sound either insincere or sanctimonious? But Father Solanus could because he had already made his rendering before he said it.

That in the 20th century, an age of doubt unto despair, a person could render himself so completely to God so that he could receive as a given the reality of God -- that is the key to Solanus Casey's sainthood. That is what all the fuss is about.

He was known in life to play his fiddle in front of the statues of the saints in the sanctuary. Now he makes music with Francis and all of God's creatures eternally. You have to lean forward, in faith, to hear it.

The music of Solanus is "heard" at the level of felt experience at the shrine built in his honor, the Solanus Center. What an inspiring place it is.

The minister general of the global Capuchin movement, Mauro Johri, is reported to have said that the custodians of the shrines to another Capuchin saint, Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, could stand to learn from the Solanus Center. Whereas Pio shrines tend to focus on the person of Pio and his miraculous powers, the Solanus Center puts the focus squarely on Christian discipleship and practices of charity. Father Solanus was often fond of telling visitors to "thank God ahead of time" for the graces and favors they would receive and encouraged a "go and do likewise" attitude in everyone who sought his help.

Some Catholic shrines pummel the senses into submission as you behold the glory of God, the majesty of Christ, the heroism of the saint, and your own insignificance. At the Solanus Center, you get a feeling of ease and calm. At the courtyard gate you are welcomed, not by warrior-like angels and saints of the Church militant, but by Brother Sun and Sister Moon and a peace garden of sculptures, from artists of different faiths, illustrating the Canticle of Creatures, composed by Francis of Assisi and beloved of Father Solanus. As you enter the center itself, you are met by modern-day apostles of non-violence who personify the Beatitudes: Dorothy Day, Catherine deHueck Doherty, Jean Donovan, Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and Archbishop Oscar Romero.

I wanted to fall to my knees, and I did so at Solanus' tomb, which was papered over with prayer requests. The tomb, originally part of the monastery cemetery, has been moved twice, first into the monastery friars' chapel, and then into the center when it was dedicated in 2002. In his lifetime, the Capuchins reassigned Father Solanus more than once to reduce the crush of people who flocked to see him (they followed him, anyway). In death, they have had to move him again, this time to bring the people he loved closer to him.

And no wonder. Solanus Casey's Christianity is attractive. It is a Christianity in which you can breathe -- in which God is near and loving. You are reassured that, although you, too, may be small and unremarkable in speech and manner; although you may not be blessed of exceptional intelligence or other gifts; yet you, too, could live by faith and hand on that faith to thousands of people who in their own way could do good and simple things. God grants us the greatness, so long as we ask only to be the person God makes us to be.

Now you know what all the fuss over Solanus Casey is about. Let us discover the secret of his faith together.

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